A Catholic Reader

Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

Menu Close

Tag: American life

Want a better world? Read Rerum Novarum

Rerum Novarum, cover of Italian edition

Who would have guessed that a papal encyclical with an untranslatable Latin title would change not just the Church but the world?

Remember the Year of Faith decreed by Pope Benedict XVI? It began in October 2012, coinciding with the height of the political season here in the United States, as we prepared for national elections. I’ll admit I was, then as now, rather jaded about our national politics — we seem usually to have a choice between “bad” and “even worse.” At the time, I entertained a little pipe dream about a political party that would be founded on the principles of Catholic social teaching, emphasizing subsidiarity, solidarity, and the inherent dignity of the human person.

I still think it would be a capital idea. In fact, I think a lot of people, in addition to Catholics, could get behind a party that promoted these key principles:

  • Subsidiarity — the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or most local competent authority, beginning with the family itself, the nucleus of society. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.
  • Solidarity means that we stand together for the common good. The poor, the weak, and the oppressed are not “other” than us, but our brothers and sisters. One person or group must not prosper at the expense of others.
  • The principle of human dignity acknowledges that each human life, from the moment it springs into existence until natural death, is endowed with inestimable value which must be acknowledged and respected. There are no “worthless” people who may be discarded or denied opportunities because others find them useless or unprofitable.

Now, I don’t want to get into political polemics on this blog — that sort of thing generally produces more heat than light — but I would like to discuss a document that first brought those three principles, the core of Catholic Social Teaching, to the attention of the world at large. So I’m going to re-publish here on this blog a series of posts that first appeared on a different blog that I created back in the Year of Faith, in which I read, analyze, and comment on Rerum Novarum, an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII which has come to be known as the foundational document of Catholic Social Teaching.

Making the modern world a better place

Watercolor of Pope Leo XIII

Leo reminded us that violence and destruction are not the way to build a better world.

Rerum Novarum (1891) was the first of a long string of papal encyclicals that set out the principles of a Christian response to the problems of the modern world. It addressed problems that were experienced by many people throughout the world, irrespective of creed or country, and thus had a much broader audience than papal writings generally do. Pope Leo XIII, in writing Rerum Novarum, offered a direct response to the Marxist call for revolution, which was firing the imaginations of many who sought to “free workers from their chains” of industrial servitude. In the Communist Manifesto, published almost fifty years earlier, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had insisted that the only solution to the world’s problems was the violent destruction of existing culture, beginning with the warfare of workers against the owners of industry. Their Manifesto struck a deep chord, and many thought it presented the answer to the wretched working conditions under which many people labored in the newly-industrialized world.

Pope Leo wanted to remind the people — Catholics and others — that the destruction called for by the socialists was not the way to build a better world. He proposes a better way for workers and employers to enjoy mutual prosperity, based on mutual respect and a sense of decency. Many ideas P. Leo enunciates in this encyclical have, in fact, had enormous influence in the century or so since it was written — the world is a better place than it would have been without Rerum Novarum.

You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate Catholic social teaching

From the promulgation of Rerum Novarum up to the present day, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has never been just for Catholics, any more than the concepts of charity and the common good are restricted to Catholics. Shortly before our last round of national elections, in an article on the website of the Acton Institute, two Protestants, one Baptist and one Reformed, praise Catholic Social Teaching and its articulation by American bishops in this political season. Hunter Baker and Jordan Ballor wrote:

For people of faith, and even for people of no particular faith whatsoever, CST represents a praiseworthy model for responsible civil engagement in a diverse and plural culture. The tradition of social encyclicals was inaugurated just over 120 years ago with the promulgation of Rerum Novarum (Of the New Things)* by Pope Leo XIII, which focused on the problem of poverty and social upheaval in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. This encyclical ushered in an era of sustained and substantive reflection on the social implications of the Catholic faith in the modern world, continued by a long line of noteworthy publications, papers, books, conferences, and debates. The most recent social encyclical appeared from the current bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2009 under the title Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), which deals with (among other things) the challenges and opportunities of globalization and economic and political instability.

[*I’ll have something to say about the title of this encyclical — and the reasons “Of New Things” is such a wretchedly inappropriate translation — in a later post.]

They go on to cite several tenets of Catholic Social Teaching as being of especial importance in the current political campaigns: subsidiarity, solidarity, and religious liberty. In conclusion they say:

To the extent that the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church reflect truth about the human person and society, they represent a boon to our broader social life as well as a challenge for other traditions to think as deeply and responsibly about the social implications of our respective faiths. The American political scene is better off for having Catholic Social Teaching, and faithful Catholics, involved in the public square.

Rerum Novarum and the current political season

As we approach another round of national elections, we all should be thinking about what is best for our country. I think reading and reflecting on Rerum Novarum is one good way to get us all thinking about the principles that should be guiding our political choices, and, more generally, our lives in modern society.

If you would like to read Rerum Novarum along with me, there are two different English translations freely available on the Internet. One (which I think is the more readable of the two) may be found on the New Advent web site; the second is more widely available (although slightly less readable, in my opinion) and can be found in many places on the internet, including the Vatican web site. If you would like a free version that can be read on a mobile device or ereader, you can download in Epub  or Mobi (Kindle) format from Papal Encyclicals Online.

In my next post on this subject, I’ll provide some background to set this work in context, so that we’ll have a better idea of what prompted Pope Leo to write Rerum Novarum. In later posts, I will summarize and comment on the document section by section. I must point out that I am by no means an expert on Catholic social teaching or papal encyclicals — I am simply an educated Catholic who wishes to gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Church’s treasury of wisdom, so that I can live a more effective witness in the world. I welcome comments, corrections, and other insight from anyone who cares to comment on Rerum Novarum, particularly those who have a more thorough knowledge and understanding than I.

If you’d like to know more about subsidiarity, a key principle in Catholic social teaching, check out this great video from CatholicVote.org.

Next post in this series

 

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Be thankful that Thanksgiving is still a national holiday

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman

With religious liberty increasingly under fire, and religion almost completely erased from the civic sphere, we should be grateful that, here in the United States, we still have a national holiday on which we are exhorted to give thanks to our Creator.   

The Catholic Thing posted some wise word from Bl. John Henry Newman for Thanksgiving Day. Here are some of them:
We are not our own, any more than what we possess is our own. . . .We are God’s property by creation, by redemption, by regeneration. He has a triple claim upon us. Is it not our happiness thus to view the matter? Is it any happiness, or any comfort, to consider that we are our own? It may be thought so by the young and prosperous. These may think it a great thing to have everything, as they suppose, their own way, — to depend on no one, — to have to think of nothing out of sight, — to be without the irksomeness of continual acknowledgment, continual prayer, continual reference of what they do to the will of another. But as time goes on, they, as all men, will find that independence was not made for man — that it is an unnatural state — may do for a while, but will not carry us on safely to the end. No, we are creatures; and, as being such, we have two duties, to be resigned and to be thankful.
Let us then view God’s providences towards us more religiously than we have hitherto done. Let us try to gain a truer view of what we are, and where we are, in His kingdom. Let us humbly and reverently attempt to trace His guiding hand in the years which we have hitherto lived. Let us thankfully commemorate the many mercies He has vouchsafed to us in time past, the many sins He has not remembered, the many dangers He has averted, the many prayers He has answered, the many mistakes He has corrected, the many warnings, the many lessons, the much light, the abounding comfort which He has from time to time given. Let us dwell upon times and seasons, times of trouble, times of joy, times of trial, times of refreshment.

“In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” Happy Thanksgiving Day.

The Country Can Benefit from Catholic Social Teaching

Carl Anderson

In an interview published this weekend on National Review Online, Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus, calls on Catholics to participate more fully in our national civic life and to answer Pope John Paul II’s challenge to build a “civilization of love.”

At one point in the interview, the interviewer, Kathryn Jean Lopez, brings up a question that has been a point of contention in the current political season: doesn’t an insistence upon using Catholic social teaching as a guide for Catholic voters put the Church in the position of dictating who should get our vote? Anderson makes clear that the Church’s position transcends mere partisanship.

LOPEZ: You make clear that Catholics should be “following Catholic social teaching in their own lives . . . withholding our votes from candidates and propositions that oppose Church teaching on matters of intrinsic evil.” You go on to say that this “should be done in every case, in every race for political office, regardless of the party of the candidate.” You continue, “It is impossible to say what party might benefit most in the long run,” but “if Catholics take such a stand, we could literally change the face of our country’s political debates.” But in the short term, doesn’t that mean not voting for Barack Obama? Is there a danger that Catholics will become too aligned with one party?

ANDERSON: There are candidates in both parties, seeking local, state, and federal offices. Some in each party are pro-life, some in each party are not. My point should not be taken simply in the context of one race, but in the context of all of them. We should apply an objective principle, and we should do so consistently. If we make exceptions based on party, it nullifies the effectiveness of the entire proposition. We need to get back to looking at our political choices from the perspective of the bible and our Judeo-Christian values. We shouldn’t conform our values to our political preferences.

Anderson goes on to point out that religious liberty has long been at the service of the common good in the United States, giving the example of the Civil Rights movement.

LOPEZ: What can defenders of religious liberty learn from the civil-rights movement?

ANDERSON: The civil-rights movement was successful because it was in the right, and it was based on the Judeo-Christian principles that informed the history of this country and the lives of most Americans. The Judeo-Christian arguments so powerful then — for instance, that all are created equal by their creator — are equally powerful in defense of religious liberty. We are no less American because we are people of faith. If anything, we are far closer to the great values that have shaped this country than secularists are. Americans are both a religious people and a people committed to the First Amendment. We should remember that. And we should, like those in the civil-rights movement, never be afraid to stand up for the truth, and to declare that faithful Americans are entitled to rights and protections guaranteed us not only by our Constitution, but, even more important, by God.

The public danger of a malformed conscience

Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero
One of the Catholic principles most embattled in our increasingly secularized society is that of conscience. Conscience, like religion, the secularists insist, is a private matter that must be sacrificed when it seems to conflict with the common good. In this view, both conscience and religion are, in effect, entirely subjective matters, which have no place in public debate. It’s easy to see how this view of conscience quickly gives way to relativism, “what’s right for me.”

Au contraire, says Matthew Hanely, in this column from The Catholic Thing. Conscience, rightly speaking, is conformed to Truth, and truth is not relativistic.

Conscience – and Cicero – under Siege

By Matthew Hanley

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has not been shy about carrying water for a distinctive brand of politicized medicine. If it is in the Orwellian “Affordable Care Act” (where promised savings of $2,500 on insurance premiums morph into $3,000 increases), the NEJM is ready to offer its “scientific” imprimatur. It ran earnest pro-rationing and pro-euthanasia pieces not long after Obamacare’s opponents were denounced as delusional alarmists; insiders now admit they see a need for death panels.I was making my way through another article in the NEJM last month, fully prepared for its slanted perspective, when something extraordinary happened. Well, I should say that the author ended an exceptionally disturbing and poorly argued piece, entitled “Recognizing Conscience in Abortion Provision,” with an extraordinarily instructive statement

.

The author, Dr. Lisa Harris from the University of Michigan, wants us to believe that the term “conscience” should not be conceded as the sole property of abortion opponents because some people, like her, feel compelled to provide abortion as a matter of conscience…

.

Read more.